Darcy Olsen

All things considered, home's still the best place to learn

Posted on August 19, 2006 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Darcy Olsen
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What I remember most about preschool were the waffle-patterned wafer cookies. You can still find them in the same three great flavors - chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.

Preschool has changed a lot since then. With childhood obesity on the rise, it's a safe bet that cookies are getting harder to come by. Building blocks and Lincoln logs are giving way to "Dora the Explorer" DVDs.

But the biggest change may be the sheer volume of kids trading in sippy cups for school desks. Once an a la carte option, preschool has become an educational must-have.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle wants more schooling for 4-year-olds and has made early education a top priority.

"Early investments like 4-year-old kindergarten, high quality child care, and Head Start programs yield significant returns for our children and our state," says the administration's KidsFirst Plan. "The early years of a child's life are critical to his or her success in school as well as in adulthood."

Few dispute the importance of the early years. But is school a better place than home for reading along to "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish" or learning how to take turns with Brother Bear?

Generations of Americans raised families, held jobs, opened businesses and kept the country growing, all without preschool.

Of course, times have changed. The traditional family with mom at home and dad at work is less common, and there are more single parents.

Still, the question must be asked: If preschool is so important, how did we succeed without it? And why are so many of today's students failing with it?

Preschool attendance has increased from a statistical blip in the 1960s to 65% today. Yet the "nation's report card" shows little to no improvement in overall test scores during this time. With this record, how did policy-makers come to view preschool as critical for success in school?

One reason is the misuse of research on children in stark life circumstances. When one 1960s experiment showed that intense intervention could give struggling children a leg-up, benefits were assumed for all children. That proved to be a mistake.

Penicillin may help a sick patient, but it provides no benefit to a healthy body and may even be harmful. Likewise, most American children are not disadvantaged, and for them, leaving a healthy home environment for preschool can be a costly trade-off.

The most recent evidence of this trade-off comes from a national sample of 22,000 children collected by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Analyses of these data suggest preschool leads to poor social behavior.

A recent report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that "pre-kindergarten attendance increases aggression and decreases self-control." Another analysis by Stanford University and University of California-Berkeley University researchers concurs, finding that "attending a center also appears to suppress social development, including the child's motivated engagement in kindergarten classrooms, self-regulation and a variety of interpersonal skills."

When parents send their children to preschool for positive socialization, these are the not the results they have in mind.

Of course, many parents send their children to preschool to pick up new learning skills.

Unfortunately, most of them meet with disappointment. While some children get an initial boost in learning, the effects disappear after a year or two of schooling. In the end, there's no discernible academic difference between students with formal early schooling and those without.

More recently, universal preschool systems have been tried in other states and found a failure. Despite having universal preschool for more than 10 years, test scores in Georgia have not improved. As one Georgia researcher reported, "there is no magic bullet here."

It may be that researchers have been looking for solutions in all the wrong places. Data from the U.S. Department of Education actually shows a positive picture of America's early education system.

Most children entering kindergarten have the basic skills they need - understanding that print reads left to right, knowing letters of the alphabet, reading numbers, recognizing shapes and counting.

U.S. students routinely perform well in the early grades, far surpassing their international peers in reading, math and science. Unfortunately the U.S. advantage does not hold and by 12th grade, our students are D students on the international curve.

Whatever the cause of that decline, preschool isn't the answer.

A promising solution to improve school achievement is competition. Arizona has more than 400 charter schools, giving traditional schools a run for their money, to the benefit of students.

A Goldwater Institute analysis examined test scores of 60,000 Arizona public school students and found that charter students show annual achievement growth higher than their peers.

Wisconsin has almost 200 charter schools operating, and that's a great start.

In the city of Milwaukee, the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College and the Milwaukee Common Council are authorizers. Outside of the city, however, only school boards can authorize new schools.

Policy-makers could expand eligible chartering authorities to include independent boards, universities and even businesses, instead of limiting chartering authority to local school boards, who have no incentive to open the door to competitors.

Milwaukee is home to the nation's best known school choice program, which has cut the high school dropout rate in half for participating students.

Programs in Dayton, New York City and Washington, D.C., have also shown strong academic gains for children. These are proven reforms that make a lasting difference in student achievement.

Universal school choice would help the Doyle administration reach its laudable goal of putting kids first and make good on Wisconsin's promise to deliver a quality education to students.

Preparing a child for school requires what it always has, and it's what millions of parents still do every day: talk, read or sing to, play with and love their children.

I'd venture to guess that many parents still think they're the best people for that job, and they'd be right.

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